How Much Belief?
How confident does a person have to be in the claims of Christianity before it can be said they believe? And how much confidence do they need in order to commit to Jesus?
In the previous post, I tried to show that faith and doubt are not at odds. A person can be a Christian despite having intellectual reservations. Faith, rather than being a synonym for certainty, is a combination of having sufficient confidence to think a claim is true and being committed to that claim. In terms of the Christian faith, it means having sufficient reasons to think the claims of the Bible are true and choosing to act on those reasons by committing oneself to Jesus as Lord.
But that raises the question of how confident a person must be before they have the ability to act and what level of confidence makes acting rational. In this post, we are going to try and tackle that question.
Convinced It's False
Most former Christians say the reason they left the faith was that they no longer believed the claims of Christianity to be true. Something convinced them that the claims of the Bible are false, making belief irrational and continued commitment impossible.
Fair enough. If a person is convinced that Christianity is false, then placing one's trust in Jesus is impossible. Even if such a person was inclined to try and commit to the lordship of Jesus, the fact that they are convinced Christianity is untrue will derail their attempt. We simply cannot live according to something we intellectually reject. Take Glenn; a former Christian who told me...
I want Christianity to be true. In fact, I think it is the only hope for the world.
The only problem is I’m convinced it’s demonstrably false.
Glenn is a good example of someone whose confidence in the truth of Christianity makes it impossible for him to choose to commit to Jesus. Clearly, if a person is convinced Christianity is false they can't and shouldn't commit to Jesus. It would be irrational to do so.
But what if a person is not quite as far along on the belief/unbelief spectrum as Glenn? What if they have doubts but are not convinced Christianity is false? Can they make a commitment to Jesus?
Admittedly, the question itself is a bit unclear. When I ask "Can they make a commitment?" that question can be understood in at least two ways.
The first way is:
"Is it possible for a person to make a commitment to Jesus if they doubt Christianity's claims?".
The second way is:
"Is a person rationally justified in making a commitment to Jesus if they doubt Christianity's claims?"
The first question has to do with one's ability to commit. The second question has to do with one's responsibility to commit. I think the answer to both questions is, yes; in certain circumstances, a person doubting the truth claims of Christianity can have the ability to choose to commit to Jesus and they can be rational in doing so despite their doubts. In this post, we'll address the first question, what level of confidence is needed to make commitment possible? In the next post, we'll address the rationality criterion.
In order to see how we need to look closely at the two aspects that comprise biblical faith: belief, and commitment. When we do, we'll see that one of them we have very little control over, but the other we do. Understanding the relationship between them will help show how it is possible for a person to choose to have faith.
Belief: I Can't Help It!
This may surprise you, but I am convinced that we have very little direct control over what we believe to be true. Typically we find ourselves believing claims that strike us as true given the evidence we have for them. For instance, if I present to you mountains of evidence that water is comprised of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, you don't choose to believe that. You simply find yourself believing it. The belief was formed in you as a result of evidence you found compelling.
Conversely, if we have evidence a claim is false, then we cannot make ourselves believe it no matter how much we want to, or how hard we try. I may want to believe that the moon is made out of green cheese but given all of the evidence I have to the contrary, I am convinced that the moon is not made out of green cheese. Try as I might, I just can’t make myself believe something I am quite certain is false.
To see this, consider the following claims:
Santa Claus is real.
Michael Jackson is alive.
The sun rises in the west.
The North Pole is a tropical climate
Triangles have only two sides.
Can you choose to
believe those claims?
commit to living as though they were true?
Of course not! And the reason why is that you have no good reasons to affirm they’re true, and lots of good reasons to think they’re false. No matter how hard you might try, you cannot make yourself believe something you are persuaded is untrue.
Commitment: I Do!
Commitment on the other hand is voluntary. In other words, we choose to place our trust in something or someone. What we believe may be largely out of our control, but what we commit ourselves to is well within our control. My confident belief about the chair’s ability to hold me up is, for the most part, not within my ability to choose but a belief I find myself having as a result of other things I believe about reality (tensile strength, the composition of wood, past experiences with chairs, general construction knowledge). But the choice as to whether or not I sit in the chair is up to me.
It's crucial to recognize that when it comes to committing it is literally impossible for us to genuinely commit (give ourselves) to a claim we believe is false or a person we are convinced is untrustworthy. We just can't do it. We might be forced to sit in a chair we're convinced is going to break, or live in accordance with a belief system we are confident is false. But in both cases, we're not doing so authentically. We are not doing so willingly. We are not doing so from the heart.
What's the key ingredient that causes us to commit from the heart? What is it that allows us to authentically commit to persons or ideologies? The answer is that we come to have confidence that a person is trustworthy or the ideology is true.
How Much Confidence?
Naturally, this raises the question of how much confidence must we have in the truthfulness of a claim or the trustworthiness of a person in order to make a genuine commitment possible. Let's answer that first by looking at how much confidence we don't need.
Consider marriage. How confident was I that my girlfriend would be a great spouse when I decided to ask her to marry me and then commit myself to her on our wedding day? The answer is pretty confident but definitely not certain. There were some doubts. That doesn't say anything negative about my wife as much as it does me! Lacking confidence in my decision-making is just my nature. Despite my doubts, I was pretty confident given what I knew about her. That level of confidence allowed me to act from the heart.
My decision to get married shares something in common with many other decisions we make every day, we lack certainty that what we are committing to is true. In other words, we have some doubts about the decision. For example, buying an appliance, choosing a college, and selecting a phone plan all involve a measure of risk. We can't be certain that any of those choices are going to turn out the way we hope. But we make them anyway. What that tells us is that certainty isn't required in order to have the ability to commit.
Okay, so we don't need to be certain in order to have the ability to commit. But that doesn't answer the question of how much confidence we do need to possess to give us the ability to genuinely commit. So how much do we need? The answer is, not much.
Levels of Belief
Belief is almost never an all-or-nothing venture. When it comes to truth claims belief is characterized by different levels of confidence. The scale below identifies various levels of confidence a person may hold toward a claim.
In relation to a claim a person may be:
Certain it's true
Confident it's true
Persuaded its true
Of the opinion it's true
Inclined to think it's true
No opinion of whether it's true or false
Disinclined to think it's true
Of the opinion it is false
Persuaded it is false
Confident it is false
Certain it is false
Obviously, if a person is certain that a particular claim is true, then they believe it. Likewise, if they are confident, and persuaded that a particular claim is true then they believe it. And obviously, if a person is certain, confident, or persuaded that a particular claim is false, then they don't believe it.
As we move from the top of the scale toward the middle of the scale, the amount of confidence the claim is true decreases, and the amount of doubt it is false increases. And as we move from the bottom of the scale to the top, the amount of doubt about the falsity of the claim decreases, and the amount of confidence it is true increases.
At some point confidence in a claim bottoms out and crosses over from belief to unbelief. And conversely, confidence in a claim grows and crosses over from unbelief to belief. In theory, there is a place where a person neither believes nor disbelieves a claim. That point is when a person has no opinion toward the truth or falsity of a claim because the evidence appears to be even.
So here's the payoff. The question we started this post trying to answer was, how confident must a person be before they have the ability to act?
The answer to that question is. . . they need to be at least "inclined to think it is true." As long as a person is "Inclined to think it's true" they believe, albeit weakly. But weakly believing is believing nonetheless. And it is enough belief to make the choice to commit possible.
To be able to commit to Jesus, one doesn't have to have ironclad certainty about everything the Bible claims. In fact, a person can have a significant degree of doubt. All that is required is enough confidence to be "inclined to think "the claims about Jesus are true. That level of confidence is sufficient to meet the first aspect of biblical faith, which is that a person believes.
I have suggested, finding ourselves inclined to think a claim is true is to believe it, and that belief provides us with the ability to make a commitment. But just because we can commit doesn't necessarily mean we should. Before we act on our ability to commit we need to ourselves ask if we are rationally justified in doing so. What makes a decision to commit to a claim a rational one is the evidential support for the claim. If there is enough evidence supporting the claim then it is rational to believe it and also commit to it. But not everyone will think the evidence is sufficient to make a commitment a rational one. The strength of the evidence strikes us all a bit differently. So how strong does a person need to find the evidence in order for them to be rational in believing the claim?
Once again, you might be surprised to learn that it's not all that strong.
Click here to find out.